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The Economist - 15 ottobre 1994
Europe: the rise of nationalisms.



SUMMARY: Pessimists fear that the spectre of fascism is stalking Europe. But how strong - and how fascist - is the new phenomenon ?

(The Economist, October 15th 1994)

At first blench, it has been a disturbingly good few weeks for Europe's far right. An Austrian with a taste for populist nationalism won nearly a quarter of the vote at a general election on October 9th. On the same day in Antwerp, Belgium's second city, more than a quarter of voters in local elections plumped for an anti-immigrant party. In Italy, the leader of the most right-wing big party is, according to the latest opinion polls, the country's most popular politician. In France, the tally of seats won in the summer's Euro-election by two parties to the right of the mainstream conservatives suggests that nearly a quarter of French voters might now support the "extreme right".

What to make of this? The usually stolid 'Le Monde' shuddered: "it is as if, in one day, the mythic gateways of the Ancient Continent - its North Sea port and the capital of Central Europe - had been swept away by a wave of extremism moving across Europe." Western European democracies, the newspaper argued, must now accept that one-fifth of their voters oppose tolerance and openness.

To define the problem as one of a worryingly large minority seems justified. The far right is more powerful, in more countries, than it has been in the recent past. Reasons for its appeal exist other than a thuggish liking for intolerance and violence: fear of crime, inflation and immigration; fear of the erosion of "family values", fear (perhaps) of losing national identity to the European Union.

But what does not seem justified, for now at least, is the idea that parties of the far right might have a chance of running a government in Europe, except perhaps as a junior coalition partner (as in Italy). It is not justified to say that the far right is growing across the continent. Counter-examples come from Germany, where the far right is collapsing, and from Britain, where the far right party lost the only munipical seat it previously held at recent local elections.

Still less is it justified to think that this means the horrors of the 1930s may be repeated. True, some symptoms and causes of the old disease have reappeared. The most consistent is a feverish assertion of nationstatehood, accompanied by a hatred of immigrants. Anti-semitism still permeates virtually all the parties of the far-right.

Yet the new far right is not technically fascist - or nco-fascist, semi-fascist, even palaeo-fascist. Hitler and Mussolini are no longer models. Most leaders eschew the symbols of the 1930s (though their brutal admirers are less bashful about parading in swastikas). In economics, the new far right is not corporatist, but liberal. Most important, the leaders say they accept pluralist democracy as the best form of government. Many mean it. There is nothing to suggest that the rise of some kind of fascism is inexorable.

The good Germans

In the country which has historical reasons for being most nervous of fascism, the farright is self-destructing. Some people worried that in the long run of elections in Germany this year, the two main grouplets of the far-right, the Republicans and the German People's Union, would win enough seats to affect the outcome of the general election.

This fear has not proved justified. The Republicans, the more feared of the two, with 14 seats in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament, have sidelined their eccentric, former waffen-ss leader, Franz Schönhuber, and will be lucky to win 2% in the election on October 16th.

The main reason for the curbing of the far right is that Germany's big conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, together with its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union, are broad churches. They heed the advice of the late Franz josef Strauss, the csu's former leader, to leave no "enemies to the right". The mainstream of conservatism in Germany is pro-European and internationalist; German nationalists exist only among its furthest fringes. When the parties' leaders sense that anti-immigrant sentiment is rising, they take note. Hence the curbing, two years ago, of Germany's generous asylum law. If a right-of-centre government continues in office, there is no reason to believe that Germany's far right will revive.

In most other countries in Western Europe, the far right has grown slightly during the recession (see chart), but not alarmingly so. Unusually high votes are confined to cities such as Antwerp, where a large immigrant population rubs against a workingclass indigenous population. In Belgium, Holland and Denmark, extreme rightwingers, even during the recession, have not captured more than 6% of the vote in general elections. True, Belgium's assorted far right-wingers have doubled their vote over the past five years, but the 9% that they captured in last week's local elections was slightly less than their score in the European elections this summer: they may have peaked.

In Britain, where the voting system penalises small parties, the anti-immigrant parties have never won a seat in parliament; they have gained the barest handful in local elections. As in Germany, the broad church of the Conservative Party prevents supporters drifting to the far right. In Spain and Portugal, run for decades by authoritarian right-wing regimes, the anti-democratic right enjoys minimal support. Neo-Nazis in the Nordic countries remain powerless.

The French case is more complex. Over the past decade, support for Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front has hovered at 10-14%. It won 12.4% in the parliamentary elections last year and 10.5% in this summer's Euro-vote. Though its support has remained consistently at this (relatively) high level, it has never broken through the 15% barrier. But do Philippe de Villiers and his new Struggle for Values movement also qualify as "far right"?

Mr de Villiers shares some of the views of the far right: he is opposed to European integration, to open borders within the European Union and to free trade. He trumpets "traditional values": the family, the nation, the Catholic church. On the other hand, he is not racist or anti-Semitic and has not put hostility to immigration at the heart of his programme. The platform his movement supported won 12% of this summer's vote for the European Parliament. If it is deemed part of the far right, then nearly a quarter of French voters back this wing.

But that is too simple. At least someperhaps many-of his supporters voted for him not because their share his Catholic fundamentalist, ultra-nationalist views, but merely because they share his hostility to the Maastricht treaty.

Nibbling at the centre

As in Germany and Britain, France's mainstream right has fended off the far right partly by stealing its thunder. In the late 1980s, Charles Pasqua, a Gaullist who is France's tough interior minister, said that the National Front and the mainstream right "shared many of the same values". The ruling conservatives have tightened French citizenship laws and introduced spot identity checks, deportation of illegal immigrants and restrictions on families joining immigrants living in France. Mr Pasqua now says he wants "zero immigration". So long as such figures have clout, anti-immigrant voters need not rush to the embrace of Mr Le Pen.

While, in almost all big western European countries, the far right is contained, there are two places where it might break out to wield greater influence: Austria and Italy. Austria's Freedom Party, which won 22.6% of the vote on October 9th, now has a small chance (which may grow) of joining a coalition government, should the longstanding ruling combination of centre-left and centre-right parties wither. The far-right Italian Social Movement (msi), the key component of the National Alliance which won 13.5% in a general election in March, is already part of Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition; opinion polls say the msi's leader, Gianfranco Fini, is more popular than the prime minister.

The question is not whether these farright parties are gaining in strength-clearly they are-but how great is their potential for mischief in the future. At the moment, the answer is unclear. On the one hand, both Jörg Haider, leader of the Freedom Party, and Mr Fini, leader of the post-fascist (as he likes to term it) msi, are well spoken men in their early 40s, who wear neat suits and sound reasonable. They are not corporatist. They have no feverish messianic vision. They do not rant.

On the other hand, Mr Haider is fiercely xenophobic, and has been goaded more than once into praising Hitler's employment policies. As for Mr Fini, while he says he wishes to bury his party's past (its parentage goes back to Mussolini), 'Il Duce's granddaughter Alessandra, an msi member of parliament for Naples, says that "grandfather would have done what he [mr Finil is doing". Respect for democracy does not seem instinctive to either man.

What both men have in common is that they have have benefited from popular disdain for the corrupt or decayed establishments that have run their countries for the past few decades. During the cold war, much of Europe's anti-establishment vote went to Marxists. That option, for most, has shrunk. Instead, people like Mr Fini and Mr Haider, posing as outsiders against systems of cosy patronage, are sweeping up the protest vote. Significantly, they are both hostile to the supranational bureaucracy of Brussels: Mr Haider campaigned against Austria's entry into the European Union. Mr Fini is more ambivalent.

Thus the success of Austria's and italy's far right does not mean that fascism is creeping up on Europe. But it may mean that parties of the mainstream right will have to pay more attention to the mood of sourness and suspicion that is helping the far right. It may mean that mainstream parties will pander more to xenophobia and other ugly emotions. And that, in turn, may mean that the post-war consensus of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic Europeanism could give way to a narrower, less tolerant, less open kind of Europe of prickly nationstates.

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